On our own together – Andrew Keen

My sister sent me this link to a virtual choir which she is very keen on joining. I thought it a perfect example of the theme provided by Andrew Keen – keynote speaker at the MRS Social Media Research conference. He is the author of the Cult of the Amateur -and in his next book wants to pursue the theme that Social Media isn't really social at all.

Let's start with the virtual choir – drenched in reverb and sounding gorgeous. This isn't social activity. The choir can't hear one another. Nor can we hear the ambient noise in their separate spaces. This virtual choir is an amalgam of a collection of solitary experiences – it has been edited together but it isn't remotely social – the listener of course thinks it is because they are confronted with a sea of faces.

And this is precisely what Andrew Keen objects to – the idea that this kind of activity is a kind of socialising. In his talk he referenced the autoicon where you can see Jeremy Bentham's mummified body on public display as a metaphor for the confusion. Bentham isn't sharing with us – this is simply a dead body in plain view. Bentham's invention of the panopticon as the ideal modern prison is I think a better metaphor. The inmates are all isolated by the jailer can see them all. In much the same way internet users can perceive themselves to be interacting with each other. But it is a display of narcissism – look at me. Little really exchange is going on -nothing to that of an offline community. And the market researcher is able to stand over it all seeing what no individual is able to see. Its a bleak vision. And when I confronted Andrew Keen over it and asked if he was telling researchers that this was an immoral place for them to stand – he backed off – my business is my business apparently. Whether or not the internet is a place where people connect or whether they perform, it is just as interesting a place for the researcher to be. But it makes a different of course whether there is real connection or if this is the equivalent of budgerigars chattering to themselves and tapping away at their image in the mirror.

Keen's other main objection is that although people know its a public space they have no idea how much they are being overlooked. He has chosen to decentre sociability – its not really sociable at all. And to centre instead on privacy – you have a right for the rest of the world not to know your business. But for this to stick he needs to demonstrate that privacy is universal and central to being human. Arguably privacy is a relatively modern preoccupation and still most people on the planet don't enjoy privacy. Clearly Keen wants his privacy and doesn't want to be sociable. Elevating these into universal values is a tall order. Though he is very entertaining as he lampoons the notion that human beings are intrinsically social and ought to be.  




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